5G is coming, and it’s going to have a massive impact on almost every facet of how we use technology, with faster speeds and lower latency theoretically opening up huge new frontiers in everything from smartphones to self-driving cars.
But the future of mobile networks isn’t here yet. And with something as complex as 5G, dozens of companies, carriers, and device manufacturers all need to work together for this kind of rollout to happen. Here’s where everything stands right now, though:
What is 5G?
On a basic level, 5G is the fifth generation of cellular networking. It’s what comes after our current 4G / LTE networks, much in the same way that LTE was a radical shift forward from 3G. Think of how much the way we used and interacted with our phones shifted when 3G data was first introduced, or how things changed again when high-speed LTE data came around. That’s the kind of change we’re looking at with 5G.
The non-standalone standard was finished in December 2017, while the standalone standard was finalized in June 2018. Having extra time to work on it and being built on existing infrastructure means that when we do see the first real 5G networks start to roll out in 2019, they’ll likely be based on that first.
That brings us to the most important part of the state of 5G: what the major carriers are actually doing to bring about these next-gen networks. Here’s where everyone stands.
AT&T: AT&T started off its 5G network on the wrong foot with its “5G Evolution” network in 2017 — which wasn’t actually 5G at all, despite the name. But the company did promise in January to roll out real, 3GPP-standard based 5G in a dozen markets by the end of 2018.
Verizon is working on a different angle than most with its 5G rollout, focusing first on a broadband service launching in Indianapolis, Houston, Sacramento, and Los Angeles in 2018, before following that up with a mobile 5G service in 2019.
When it comes to actual phones with 5G, we’re still pretty early in the game. Most companies are focused on releasing phones that you’ll be able to buy this year, but there are a few developments on the 5G front already — and we’ll likely start to hear even more in 2019 at events like CES and Mobile World Congress at the beginning of next year, so check back here soon for more updates.
Qualcomm doesn’t actually make phones, but it’s a hugely important piece of the 5G puzzle, given that the company provides modem and processor chipsets for a massive chunk of the market. To that end, the company is already working on its Snapdragon X50 Modem for 5G, with major companies like Nokia / HMD, Sony, Xiaomi, Oppo, Vivo, HTC, LG, Asus, ZTE, Sharp, and Fujitsu all on board.
Intel has struggled of late as it comes to making headway in the mobile market — most prominently, the company’s modems appear in some iPhone models (and possibly all of this year’s models) — but they’ve tended to perform worse than their Qualcomm counterparts. But 5G may offer a fresh chance to turn things around, with Intel already announcing its first 5G modem for phones, cars, drones, and other connected devices, along with a partnership with Microsoft, Dell, HP, and Lenovo to build 5G laptops.
Samsung also hasn’t announced a 5G phone yet, but it’s got the next best thing: its new Exynos 5100 modem, which Samsung says is fully compatible with the 3GPP’s 5G standard. Included is support for both the sub-6GHz and mmWave portions of the electromagnetic spectrums, as well as legacy networks like, 2G, 3G, and 4G LTE — all in a single chip. Now all we need is a phone that’ll use it.
Huawei makes its own processors and modems, and it’s not missing out on 5G, either. The company announced its Balong 5G01 chipset based on the 3GPP standards at MWC earlier this year. And at Mobile World Congress Shanghai, it announced both a 5G-ready Kirin chip for release sometime in 2019, and a 5G smartphone set for June 2019, although there are not a lot of details yet on either of those.
Notably missing in all of this is Apple. As one of the world’s preeminent smartphone companies, whatever side of the 5G line Apple ends up on will almost certainly have massive ramifications for the rest of the industry.